Norjin Kansang- 2009
By 2009, my brother Steve and I, along with our lifelong buddy Jim Gile, had reached a point in our ski mountaineering careers that included adventures in Alaska, South America, and, ultimately, the Himalaya. Without realizing it, we had pointed our lives towards high-altitude climbing and skiing if only because we seemed to be fairly good at it. Our desire for more was stronger than ever, and we continued to plan and execute expeditions to new 6,000-meter peaks in South America. These trips were affordable and relatively quick, which helped us stay involved with our families back home, and we often found ourselves back in familiar haunts and with familiar friends in places like Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile.
These were great trips, but they also gave us an opportunity to get better. We learned to climb much more efficiently, and with the improvements in gear, which in the 2000s were considerable, we found that our aging bodies could not only still climb and ski well, but improve in all aspects of high-altitude living. But it left us with a void of sorts. We pondered what we could do next.
After Cho Oyu and Everest, we realized that we had done not only two descents from above 8,000 meters, but along the way, Steve and I had racked up five ski descents from above 7,000 meters. According to what we could find on the internet, 7,000-meter peak ski descents were not exactly common. But with a bit of effort, we pieced together that only a handful of other ski mountaineers, all Europeans, had as many. Skiing from above 7,000 meters in the face of 8,000 meters was not something that many people claimed along the way, but having skied from that height as many times as we had, it became something we started to consider seriously, and took a great deal of pride over. The reality was that with two 8,000-meter peak ski descents under our belt, we knew enough to understand how difficult that objective was, both physically and mentally, but also financially; 8,000 meters was our goal, but reality—i.e., our bank account situation—was a different story.
So we focused on 7,000 meters if only because it was an enormous objective while still being tremendous fun. And, it was financially a fraction of what 8,000-meter peaks cost. With a bit of money in the coffer from the film business, and a pitch to do a sequel called Beyond Skiing Everest, we hit up a handful of previous sponsors to obtain ski footage from another remote 7,000-meter peak that was both relatively unknown, and by comparison, extremely affordable. We called Kari Kobler, the owner of a guiding company based in Switzerland, whom we’d met and befriended on Everest. We let him know we wanted to go to a 7,000-meter ski peak where there would be no people.
“I’ve got just the peak for you,” he said. “Norjin Kansang, 7206 meters [23,642 feet].” The peak was difficult to find information on. It was well off the beaten path for the Everest hordes, and the cost was minimal. Perfect!
By early 2009, we had formed a team. Jim Gile couldn’t get away from work, but we persuaded Aspenites John Callahan and Mike Maple, both childhood buddies, to join us. John was a former Olympic cross-country skier and avid ski mountaineer who had been on many of our previous trips. He was strong and level headed. Maple had little experience with altitude, but he was incredibly strong both physically and mentally and had a huge capacity for endurance. He had joined us as often as anyone on the peaks in our backyard, and we welcomed him. He had also been an extraordinarily talented ski racer in his youth, and was as passionate about a good adventure as anyone.
We also wrangled a new but close friend, Ham Mehlman, who had reached out to us in his quest to write a book on high-altitude skiing. He was a former editor of the Harvard Crimson, a diehard skier, and always up for an adventure. He wanted to join the trip and get a first-hand taste of the subject matter. Ham was also a successful hedge-fund manager, and helped defray part of the expedition cost. At the last minute, Jon “Gibjo” Gibans from Aspen, an emergency room physician with a specialty in high-altitude medicine, joined. He had also slugged out several Himalayan expeditions, a few along with us.
We all met in Lhasa, toured the city—including the Potala Palace—and were off. We drove west, and came to a familiar intersection in the road. One sign pointed right, to “Everest.” Another sign, with some Chinese writing, pointed left. When the bus turned the opposite direction of Everest, we knew we were on an adventure!
We arrived at basecamp with a tight schedule. The plan was to head immediately to advance basecamp, a day’s walk from basecamp, but when we got out of the jeep, our heads were spinning. Our altimeters told us we were at 15,500 feet and we needed to acclimate. We set up basecamp at the end of the road below a beautiful monastery that was occupied by several Tibetan nuns. Other than them, and a few yak herders, no one had been at this camp for years. Our driver spoke to the yak herders to arrange for us to move in a couple of days. It was still too early in the season for yaks, which were far down the valley grazing, but he said he had ponies that could do the job. We settled in with the anticipation of a rest day.
A day later, we felt better, but we needed an additional day to acclimate. We decided to do a quick, easy hike. We stopped off at the monastery where the nuns were excited to see us, but with the language barrier, no one had much to say. We headed up above the monastery for a bit more altitude. We weren’t prepared for what came next. As we crested a small buttress, the entire south face of Norjin Kansang rose up before us, dropping sharply into a vast lake that was still half frozen. A serac at the foot of the peak shed immense chunks of ice that calved off into the lake, leaving us gawking in awe. There was little beta on this peak, and we had no idea that this lake even existed. The sky was clear and the sun was warm, and we sat gazing at this unexpected jewel that few—if any—had ever seen. And jewel was an understatement. We sipped a bit of water, ate a quick snack, and descended back to basecamp in utter amazement. To us, the trip was already a success.
We headed up the valley, which gained very little altitude as we walked around the base of the peak to where we would set up our basecamp. As we entered the enormous, glacier-carved cirque, another lake greeted us. It was a magnificent place, and we would happily call it home for the next two weeks. The north face of the peak was sheer and steep, with a massive glacier flowing from its base to just above our camp. We had no idea where the route was; we didn’t even know if we were on the right side of the mountain. We spent another day acclimating, scoping the various and unlimited routes through our camera lenses as well as going on another hike up the slopes behind camp. The only feasible route—a long slog up scree slopes to a small glacier which ended at a small buttress on the left side of the peak—eventually became clear. There would be a long traverse on what appeared to be a steep rock ridge to the main glaciers on the peak. From there, we figured we could climb steep but doable slopes to the steep summit pyramid. It was a long route, but any direct route was blocked by towering ice cliffs near the summit, which calved off with horrendous roars farther up the glacier. We decided on the route and settled into life at camp.
Ham, however, was not doing well. Although at 16,000 feet advance basecamp was only slightly higher than basecamp, coming from Boston, he was not acclimated as well as the Colorado contingent. He labored for two nights with a headache and sour stomach, and on the next day showed signs of pulmonary edema—most notably, he was coughing up pink sputum. We immediately brought out the oxygen, which had leaked on the carry in, and suddenly we were desperate. We called our logistics guide on the satellite phone, and then Steve and Callahan loaded Ham’s gear into their packs and escorted the hobbling man down the valley to a waiting Jeep. The retreat was, thankfully, a success. The event was a wakeup call, too. We were high and despite the added rest day at basecamp, we were higher than was practical. We spent the next two days at advance base resting.
We managed to get in light acclimating hikes up the hills behind camp, which ate into our time, but we knew without properly acclimating we were subjecting ourselves to potential disaster. With very little relief on the route back to the road and potentially a day’s wait for a Jeep, the need for everyone to be fully acclimated to advanced basecamp was critical. Descent is the only way to combat deadly high altitude edema, and where we were there wasn’t a lot of descent to be had. We felt lucky getting Ham out safely, and we didn’t want to push our luck.
We finally felt good enough for the long climb to Camp 1, and set out with huge loads. The climb started on steep, unstable talus. We circumnavigated a small glacier on the first trip because we had no idea how to get onto it, or if it was even possible. The talus ended at an area of flat shale on top of a broad buttress, which made for easy walking. Our loads were extraordinarily heavy, and our legs felt wooden. We moved slowly letting our legs swing under our bodies, and by the time we reached camp, at 19,000 feet, just at the top of the glacier, we were wiped out. All our loads were of group gear: tents, stove kits, food, fuel, and our skiing equipment. With no Sherpa support, and this being a very big mountain, the stroll along the ridge brought the reality of the situation into focus. What we were attempting was substantial. But each step brought us a bit higher and closer to the end, and with that, confidence and satisfaction fueled our tired bodies. We arrived at Camp 1, set everything up and secured it, and immediately headed down to thicker air, 3,000 feet below. We rested for a day after the effort, and then the next day headed up to sleep.
After a fitful night at Camp 1, the next objective was to set up Camp 2 at about 21,000 feet on top of a steep glacier. This entailed down-climbing a rock ridge for several hundred feet, and then gaining the glacier. It didn’t look far, but we knew that it was deceiving. We took the climbing hardware—pickets, screws, and ropes—not knowing if the slope was ice, and knowing it had crevasses. The snow slopes were steeper than we thought, but they were a perfect consistency for climbing. We didn’t need protection.
The objective was thus coming into focus, but as soon as we started, progress was slow. We labored on, noticing the grand north face of the mountain to our right and the dots of our tents at ABC far below. As we rounded a knoll at the top of the slope, we came across some old tents, abandoned and shredded, left by uncaring climbers too lazy to haul them off. I wondered how the slopes ahead had thwarted them. Were they truly lazy or simply too fagged to take the equipment back down the slopes and then back up to the next camp? Looking ahead, we also became aware of the next major hurdle: climax slots—deep dirt-to-air cracks in the glacier—that dotted the face from one side of the peak to the other. We used our camera lenses to search for snow bridges, but immediately realized our summit push was going to be a lot longer than any direct line with the commensurate back-and-forth effort to stitch a route together through the gaps. We had failed to bring nearly enough wands to mark our trail, but were happy when the nuns at the monastery presented us with about 50 bamboo wands with red tape on their ends. The wands were so old that the tape was pink, and it disintegrated to the touch. We wondered how old they were and who left them, but we were nonetheless happy to get them. We would be able to leave our “bread crumb” trail to help us descend, which we’d do unroped. They’d be critical, too, if a whiteout blew in. Hopefully, we’d be able to stick to our line and get off. Twenty thousand feet was an altitude personal best for Maple, who was fatigued, but as always, positive and excited. We headed back to camp, but during the descent realized that Camp 2 was a long distance and a Herculean effort away.
By the day of our summit push, we were running low on time, and we opted to forgo the second camp, reasoning it was more effort than just going for the summit with only ski gear. We also wanted to learn more of what we were capable of. On Broad Peak, Shishapangma, Mustagh Ata, and Cho Oyu, we had eliminated high camps in favor of long summit pushes, so we had a track record to support our reasoning. But on Norjin, our timeframe was stunted, and the 6,000-foot total descent, including the dip above Camp 1, seemed a monumental proposition—we wanted to know if we could do it. Physically it was a big day, but mentally, with no other climbers and no established route, it was a huge undertaking. We were guardedly excited and had a healthy level of nervousness. We didn’t know if we could reach the summit, but we didn’t care. Our ambitions shifted at this point. We knew we could climb and ski the highest peaks. We had been on enough expeditions doing things in the accepted fashion and we’d gained an appreciation for pushing ourselves a bit harder each time. Norjin presented us with a time crunch, thereby forcing us to look at pushing ourselves a bit further than in the past. We were also exceptionally aware that we might be able pull off another 7,000-meter peak ski descent. So we were fueled by ambition, but there was a hell of a lot of excitement, too. We were fit as we had ever been, and we had a super-strong, well-congealed team. We rested for three days, and set off.
The climb up the glacier to Camp 1 went as planned. We felt great and the clear skies allowed us to enjoy views that were as magnificent as we had ever seen. We managed to sleep well that night—too well in fact, and we dozed a half hour past our watch alarms, which were set for midnight. The panic that ensued when we woke up and realized that we were running late sent adrenaline through our bodies. But Steve quickly calmed us all down, noting “No big deal, we have a bit more fuel in the tank and we’ll make up for it.” We gained the snow, which was hard after the previous night’s freeze. The climbing was perfect. Just as we gained the missing Camp 2, the sky lit up, and with it, for the first time in a week, clouds and wind buried the upper slopes. The weather was changing. The temperature was nauseatingly cold.
For the sake of moving fast and light, we took minimal shells and light parkas so we didn’t, and couldn’t stop long. We continued up steepening slopes, and began to weave our way back and forth, looking for snow bridges. The back and forth was frustratingly slow. We had to climb roped, the slopes were steep, and the direction changes were cumbersome. Without the slots, our line would have been simple, short, and straightforward. Because of them, our time was tripled. But we managed slowly to gain the summit pyramid at about 22,000 feet. We had about 1,400 feet to go.
The spindrift blew violently off the summit, but we were on the opposite side of the mountain, somewhat protected from the storm. We continued to climb, but the snow kept accumulating and formed a thick but hollow slab, which we were soon climbing on.
At just over 7,000 meters, Callahan suddenly piped up, “Boys, I am not comfortable on this slab.”
My stomach lurched inside as I halted. I wasn’t sensing the danger, but red flags went up inside my head: “what am I missing here?!” The slope was easily 40 degrees—steep enough to break away—but the crust was fairly consistent. Steve looked at the snow and then at me with denial and disdain.
Later he would recall, “We were spitting distance from the summit and I wanted it badly. I was pissed! But Callahan is a brother to me. We’ve been on many climbs. I had to listen.”
Over all the previous expeditions, we had an unwritten rule: defer to the most conservative ideals. In this case, Callahan was adamant. The risk that we were taking at that moment kept us in check. If, God forbid, someone had gotten hurt or killed, we would all have had to live with that for the rest of our lives. And, if that slope broke loose, it would not have stopped until careening over the ice cliffs and nearly vertical ice slopes to the bottom of the peak. Turning around was a no brainer. At over 23,000 feet, after ten hours of climbing, it wasn’t an easy decision. However, Gibjo spoke up, and pointed out that the weather was coming in. Plus, it was already late in the day. The decision was discussed no further.
We carefully—slowly, methodically—stepped into our skis. A fall or losing a ski, again, would have netted a fall down the entire north face of the peak, ending nearly at ABC. Once we were secured on the edges of our skis, getting going on the chalky crust was all that mattered.
Callahan and Gibjo achieved their second 7,000-meter ski descent, Maple his first, and Steve and I got our sixth. After we were off the slabby face, the knowledge that we had avoided a catastrophe came as a great relief. We still had to negotiate the numerous slots, but the failed summit, barely missed as it was, was forgotten. We were still a long way from camp. We carefully proceeded one at a time skiing between the crevasses, watching for possible hidden slots that we may have missed. At the wands, we straight-lined un-roped over the snow bridges until everyone was safely on the downhill side.
We made sure that the last skier always carried the rope. I always carry a 50-foot piece of 7-millimeter cord in my pack in case of a fall. The snow was a bit rough below, but it still offered great skiing and the slopes were steep and exciting. We found ourselves back at our would-be Camp 2 and stopped for a drink. The lower slopes were hard and icy and fell away to the north, exposing a fall and a death slide on the 45- to 50-degree slopes. Needless to say, it required extremely delicate skiing back to the rocky ridge. Safely back at the ridge, we shouldered our skis, and headed back across the ridge and up to camp.
We were beyond tired, totally running on fumes, now 15 hours into the bid. We pulled camp and then hauled everything back down to ABC. The lower glacier presented extremely difficult skiing compared to our descent a week earlier, and with our 80-pound loads, skiing the last 500 feet was impossible. We down-climbed back to camp, and 20 hours after we set out from Camp 1, we were safely off the peak.
We barely missed the summit, but we knew if the conditions were better, we could have tagged it. Regardless, we had the satisfaction of one of the harder days in our careers. As Maple put it at the turn-around point high on the face, it was his “hardest day by a factor of ten.” For Steve and me, attaining our sixth ski descent was a mark that we never thought would happen until that expedition, and while we still looked up to the greats of the sport, we knew that in the small circle of high-altitude skiers, we had etched a mark in the conversation. But more satisfying was the knowledge that we could go a bit harder, a bit farther and a bit higher in large pushes.
But perhaps most importantly, we had assembled an incredible team of players we could tap for more trips. We missed Jim severely on the trip, but later our success fueled his passion for more as well. We were high altitude skiers by the only definition we had ever heard, ours.